A couple of weeks ago, I invited you to vote on your opinion of the use of the present tense in crime fiction. It’s an interesting question, and, I think, a timely one. There are plenty of modern books written in the present tense, and I was fascinated to learn what you think of it. Thanks very much to all of you who participated. Now, let’s keep the discussion going. Let’s start by having a look at the results of the poll.
As you can see, of the 21 of you who were kind enough to vote, over half (12) don’t mind the use of the present tense. Your comments show me, too, that your focus is much more on the quality of the story and the characters than it is on the tense. That’s borne out by the fact that 4 of you said you don’t really notice which tense the authors of your crime fiction use. Interestingly enough, 5 of you said you dislike the use of the present tense. That doesn’t surprise me particularly, since I know from your blogs and from other comments a few of you have made that you don’t care for it. Perhaps the most interesting finding here (at least to me) is that no-one mentioned liking the use of the present tense.
So what does all of this mean? There were only 21 respondents, so it’s hard to make any kind of general statement. But It seems to me, just from looking at this, that while tense may be a reason you’d choose not to read a book (or if you do, that you’d not like it), it’s not a reason you would read a book (or like it). In other words, if tense affects your opinion of a book, it’s in a negative way. And another glance at the data shows that for 16 of you (76%), tense doesn’t make a difference; either you don’t mind it or you don’t notice it.
I thought it might be interesting to put this in a larger perspective. Just how many crime novels are there in the present tense? Is this a large issue, or is it something smaller, but something that you really notice if you don’t like it? After all, it only takes one mosquito in a room to be really annoying. And for those of you who don’t like the present tense, it may only take one book written in that tense to annoy you.
To study this question just a little, I chose 200 books from among those I have read. All of the books have been published since 2000. I selected that year, because although I don’t have the data to support me, it’s my impression that a lot more books have been written in the present tense since 2000 than before it. For each book, I noted whether it is written in the past tense, the present tense, or some combination (and yes, there were a few of those). Here’s what I found:
As you see, 75% of the books in my data set are written in the past tense. So, even since 2000, there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming tendency to write in the present tense. Keep in mind, of course, that this is quite a limited data set, since it only represents books I have read. Still, I think it hints that there aren’t as many books written in the present tense as it might seem, especially if you don’t like that tense when you read.
In the end, based on what you’ve told me and on what this bit of data shows, the real key to a well-written book isn’t what tense the author chooses. It’s the quality of the plot, the character development and the overall writing style. But then, you knew that…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elvis Costello’s Brilliant Mistake.